Singer-songwriter Claire Holley had pretty well established herself as an up-and-coming talent in the fertile North Carolina music scene when, after a quartet of nationally praised albums, she abruptly relocated to Los Angeles. The move was inspired not by the usual career ambitions but by changes in her personal life. For a while, it was all quiet on Holley’s western front, and it seemed she was too consumed by the demands of marriage and motherhood to squeeze in any more time for music-making.
But over the past several months, she’s quietly begun re-asserting her presence with a trio of recordings earning high praise from critics and the NPR set. The three-disc collection “A Case for Case: A Tribute to the Songs of Peter Case” places Holley’s rendition of Case’s “Two Angels” alongside estimable contributions from Dave Alvin, Mike Martt, James McMurtry, John Prine, Chuck Prophet and Steve Wynn, among others, while “Songs for Sixty-Five Roses” finds her joining North Carolina contemporaries such as Caitlin Cary, Tift Merritt and Southern Culture on the Skids to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
In December, she independently released a CD with fellow singer-songwriter Caroline Herring, “Live at St. Andrew’s,” a homecoming concert of folk and gospel traditionals complemented by originals such as Holley’s blues romp “Six Miles to McKenney.” So far they’re only selling it via Holley’s Web site (www.claireholley.com) and in their beleagured home state of Mississippi.
Holley was raised in a deeply musical family in Mississippi, where she learned to play piano at her grandmother’s insistent behest but gravitated more naturally to guitar. A college professor in Chicago encouraged her musical inclinations, and she followed those coffeehouse years with a lengthy sojourn in North Carolina. She moved to Los Angeles about two years ago.
More recently, the well-traveled artist has been giving low-profile performances at acoustic-friendly clubs such as Hotel Café, Taix Lounge and especially Downbeat Café in Echo Park. The club’s setup is tailor-made for the kind of bona fide characters Holley immortalizes in her melodic song portraits: stuttering classmates, cranky whale-watchers, aging singers and bill-counting bartenders. Her flair for telling stories about them harks back to her Southern roots and is her signature musical trait. Holley also applies her sweetly smoky soprano to a repertoire of blues covers and pop standards that suit the cafe’s hep vibe. It’s become a cozy home away from home — she plays there every other Monday.